“Shimone the Righteous said, ‘The world exists on account of three matters: Torah, service, and kindness’.” (Ethics, 1:2)
Talmud Sanhedrin 108a states that the great good God bestowed upon the generation of the Flood caused them to say this: “Depart from us [God], and the knowledge of Your ways we do not desire. What is God that we should worship Him? Of what benefit is there in approaching him? Do we need Him, except for a drop of rain? We have rivers, we’ll make use of them [instead].”
God thereby destroyed that generation, conveying the very idea from Ethics above, that in the era of the Flood, man became so corrupt; the world’s purpose was lost. If we are discerning, we will find in the words of that generation, the same elements found in Shimon’s words.
That generation received great blessings from God, as God desires man to have all his needs addressed. The Talmud teaches that due to those benefits, the people grew haughty. This is our first lesson: man’s ego is unrelenting, and seeks to surge forth at all times. Although ego is a necessary psychological component, which assists man to strive towards accomplishments to secure a good life, it can be abused like anything else.
What are these three elements required for the world’s creation?
The first, Torah, means that a life not guided by reason, is not worthwhile. Socrates said, “An unexamined life is not worth living”. If man were to simply follow the lead of the generation of the Flood, seeking physical pleasures and nothing else, his soul would expire with his death. There would then be no purpose in his life on Earth. This means that the true good, is only that which is eternal: temporal, Earthly life is not God’s desire for man. If man does not eventuate in a state where he is attached to understanding God’s wisdom, his purpose is lost. God did not create a world, simply to exist “for itself”. That statement is false: to suggest X exists “for” some goal, means that a purpose is realized. But since the entire universe is an expression of God’s wisdom and cannot exist without God, the goal of all creation must, in some form, be relegated to an “appreciation for God”. Therefore, an inanimate world cannot have any purpose; unless a being perceives it’s tremendously wise design and arrives at an appreciation for the Designer. Thus, the world was created for intelligent beings to arrive at knowledge of God – Torah. But that alone is insufficient.
The next element is service of God. Man is created in a fashion, where his true convictions must lead to actions. If man says he is convinced of something, like charity being worthwhile, yet he gives no charity, he is not convinced. Therefore, a person who truly is convinced that God created the world must act towards God in a subservient manner. This is “service”. Examples include sacrifice to God, Temple worship, and prayer.
But God is not the only being with which man interacts: there are societies. Man must realize that he is not the only human, and it is God’s will that many people exist. This must cause man to treat others as himself, for this is a true expression of his understanding of God’s will. If man does not give charity, or mistreats others, he denies this will of God. We now understand Shimone’s statement: wisdom, service, and kindness are God’s goal in creating the world.
The generation of the Flood first said “the knowledge of Your ways we do not desire.” They rejected a life of wisdom. Then, “What is God that we should worship Him?” They rejected service of God. Ultimately, we learn that God sealed their fate due to robbery, “Their fate was not sealed except for robbery”. (Rashi on Gen. 6:13) They rejected kindness.
The primary objective in the world’s creation is that man might engage in wisdom and continually draw closer to God through studying His works, becoming convinced of God, and His will. And this wisdom is measured as “conviction” only when man acts on that wisdom. So the formula is this: “the world exists so that God’s wisdom become human convictions.”
The generation of the Flood, and all generations prior to Sinai possessed no Torah, just seven commands. It is clear from God’s punishments that our Torah was not necessary for man to arrive at perfection. Furthermore, God rightly destroys violators, since man deviated from God’s will. God deemed seven commands sufficient for 2448 years. Until Egypt, Canaan and other cultures deviated from God’s will, a Torah could not command “against” following such lifestyles. Only once something exists, can it be addressed. Similarly, God cannot command man to celebrate the Egyptian Exodus, until it occurred. So it is clear that the Torah of 613 commands could not possibly exist in early generations. The Rabbinic commentaries that state, “Abraham celebrated Passover”, must be understood on a deeper level, since the Exodus did not yet transpire. This simply means that Abraham possessed the same perfections “as if” he celebrated Passover. (Rabbi Reuven Mann)
I mention this, as I discovered an interesting two verse: “My laws you shall do and My statutes you shall guard to walk in them, I am Hashem your God. And you shall guard My statutes and My laws that man shall do them and live by them, I am God.” (Leviticus 18:4,5)
These two verses are almost identical, so we wonder at such a repetition. Each and every Torah verse must teach something new. There is no superfluity in Torah. That is part of God’s perfection. So what distinctions can we uncover in these verses?
The first verse places “laws” before “statutes”. The second verse reverses the order. The first verse alone discusses “walking” in the commands. The second verse alone says “and you shall live by them”. We must note that “law” refers to agreeable commands, like murder, rape, and stealing. We readily agree to such prohibitions. But a “statute” refers to items like Tefillin, Tzitzis, mixing milk and meat, wearing wool and linen, and other laws that we would not have developed independent of God’s instruction.
In connection with the latter verse, Maimonides makes an interesting statement:
“The rabbis stated, ‘That because of the sacrifice worship the world exists’. For in performing the statutes and the laws, upright people merit the World to Come. And the Torah placed the command of statutes before laws, as it says, ‘And you shall guard My statutes and My laws that man shall do them and live by them’.”
We wonder; did not Maimonides see the verse that immediately precedes his quoted verse? We just noted that Leviticus 18: 4 places “laws” before “statutes”! How then can Maimonides suggest that since the next verse orders statutes first, that this conveys a greater importance of statutes over laws? “Statutes” and “laws” appear to equally share the limelight. Accordingly, Maimonides should not have prioritized statutes over laws. So why did he? Recall, statutes refer to commands, which are not readily understood. According to Maimonides, it is our performance of “statutes” which earn the world’s existence.
Perhaps Maimonides understood as follows: our subjugation to God is why God created man. Not that we be “enslaved”, but that we strive towards a life of wisdom. As a Rabbi once said, “Serving God truly means serving ourselves”, since in doing so, we enjoy the best life replete with the thrill of discovery. Statutes are matters, which we do not perform because they pass our test of reason. We may abstain from murder, rape and robbery since we readily see such crimes corrupt society. These are “laws”. However, our adherence to statutes indicates that we do not make our understanding a prerequisite for following God, but we follow Him regardless: since He commanded us. Adhering to statutes displays our full subjugation to God, as it should be, since He created us.
It is this subjugation that the generation of the Flood rejected, and why they were destroyed. Why then didn’t God give “statutes” to the first generations? I believe the answer is found in the first verse we quoted: “My laws you shall do and My statutes you shall guard to walk in them, I am Hashem your God.” The operative term here is “walk”. In this verse, “laws” is placed first. Why? I believe it is because this verse is not describing the post-Sinai system, as a response to corrupt cultures. This verse alludes to a life where one follows that which his mind tells him is correct. Thus, “laws” is mentioned first. In this verse, God teaches man – even though he is now post-Sinai – that the we must still strive to ‘also’ live, as did the first generations, when they lived not based on a highly formulated system of 613 commands. They “walked” in a lifestyle learned simply by studying the universe, as was God’s plan for Adam, Eve, Noah, and all others at that time.
These two verses teach that we must live on two tracks: 1) based on reason alone, we should naturally “walk” in what our minds tell us, and not follow emotional impulses; and 2) we must subjugate our actions to God’s will, regardless of our understanding.
The original generations had the opportunity to follow their minds alone, with only seven commands. They failed. A new system was required to force man to subjugate himself to God in all areas. The Megilla states, “They arose and accepted, that which was already accepted.” This means the “love” – the natural attachment – of Torah was arrived at during the Megilla, and not at Sinai, when the Jews were coerced to follow the Torah system. The Megilla highlights these two lifestyles we mentioned, and which I believe these two verses in Leviticus underline.
We now grasp why Maimonides said “And the Torah placed the command of statutes before laws”. He is not denying the previous verse that reverses the order. But he does not quote that verse, as that verse is stating an imperative of a different nature than Maimonides’ present discussion. Maimonides only addressed man’s need to fully subjugate himself. And this is outlined in his properly quoted verse, where statutes are prior. But this does not dismiss the gravity of living our lives on a double track: one of subjugation as Maimonides cites, and another, where we strive towards the lifestyle where we naturally follow our minds. It appears that the first verse, which describes a life naturally attached to God, is a higher level. Similarly, the Jews during the Megilla reached a higher level, noteworthy of being recorded in the Megilla.
Abraham lost nothing living without Torah, since with his mind alone; he arrived at the lifestyle God desires. But as a Rabbi said, “Most people aren’t an Abraham.” Thus, we need a Torah to assist us towards the lifestyle Abraham led. With this great subjugating tool, we can arrive at a love of Torah highlighted in our first verse. Although we must live by the 613 commands, we learn from the first verse above that there is another, higher level of life we must arrive at. Again this lesson is taught in the fact that love of God is greater than fear of God. Living Torah lifestyles out of an attachment to its beautiful wisdom outweighs living out of a fear of punishment. But the latter must precede the former, since we are not Abrahams.
I find it interesting that even post-Sinai, God embeds a verse in the Torah calling our attention to the lifestyle originally mapped out for the original generations. That’s lifestyle still holds prominence.
“Shimone the Righteous said, ‘The world exists on account of three matters: Torah, service, and kindness’.”
A system now including statutes addresses the shortcomings of the generation of the Flood. It offers us a means to arrive at wisdom, and how to relate to our fellow man. It is only for the objective of man following wisdom, and acting upon those convictions in his relationship with God and society, that the world was created. But be mindful that this 613 system is a “response” to previous civilizations that corrupted mankind. Before that corruption, man was capable of engaging all his faculties to arrive at a love of God. Man is certainly of greater merit when he utilizes his design alone to reach God, as compared to when he is forced. Nonetheless, even with the forceful nature of Sinai – where God “held a mountain over our heads in threat” – we can use this system to arrive at a true love of Torah where we mimic that generation of the Megilla.
One final note: Maimonides did not end with “subjugation” alone as man’s goal, but rather, “For in performing the statutes and the laws, upright people merit the World to Come”. Maimonides teaches that subjugation will lead upright people to eternal life. God’s will is not that we are subjugated per se, but that through such subjugation, we begin to enjoy His wisdom, and enjoy it eternally. If we learn for the sake of seeing truths, we will desire to see more, and God will grant us an eternity to do so. This is why Maimonides quoted the second verse, which states “and live by them”. This word “live” refers to eternal life. (Rashi)
 Eating a limb from a live animal was commanded. I simply talk in general.
 God did not truly suspend a mountain over those Jews’ heads. This metaphor means that Sinai proved God beyond all doubt, that those Jews felt no way they could deny Him and His Torah, just like no one could deny a request from one who suspended a mountain over their head. Therefore, at that time, Torah observance was of a coerced nature. The Rabbis state the Jews left Sinai afterwards, like a child fleeing from school. The Rabbis also taught that the Jews “cried by the household” regarding Torah law. They explain this to mean “regarding” the household, i.e., members of the household; with whom they previously engaged in sexual intercourse, but could not do so any longer due to Torah prohibitions. Torah is truly restrictive, and pains the follower, until he or she can comprehend the benefit to his or her soul. Torah law competes with our natural emotions, and caused a rejection of Torah. But with time, a Torah student will rise above emotions, realizing truths to outweigh momentary gratifications. Love of Torah will ensue, if one takes the first steps in honest inquiry.